How to talk to kids about disturbing events
In the days after the earthquake in Haiti, 10-year-old Montrealer Tyler Schwartz began having trouble falling asleep. She was asking many questions about the earthquake and why it had happened. During one conversation, it became clear to her mother, Andrea Bertalan, that Tyler was scared that an earthquake would happen in Montreal and destroy her family.
Bertalan realized that the frequent discussions with friends and extensive media coverage of the earthquake were causing her daughter great anxiety. So she talked to her about how earthquakes happen and emphasized that, in a city like Montreal, we would be more prepared because our buildings are better constructed and we would have access to more resources.
“I explained to her that Haiti is a very poor country and perhaps some of the buildings were not very solid because they didn’t use the best materials,” she said.
Bertalan also made the decision not to watch coverage of the disaster on television while her daughter was around. Not long after, Tyler began sleeping well and her anxiety lessened.
As the events and media coverage of Haiti demonstrated, it’s nearly impossible to shield children from painful events, be they large scale disasters, information about the Holocaust or local events such as the kidnapping of a child.
Family therapist Nathalie Hazan says it is common for children to worry that a natural disaster that occurred abroad may then happen in their city. If this is the case, kids need reassurance from parents. She advises using concrete, simple language with younger kids, using words the children would use themselves.
“How much you tell them depends on the individual child and their age,” she says. “If the child is already a bit anxious, set a limit on what you tell them.”
For example, if a child asks about earthquakes, you might talk about how cities prepare for such calamities by making sure buildings are solid and having an emergency plan of action. If a child is old enough, you can even check out websites that discuss preparing for emergencies (for example, having canned food and bottled water stored in the home). However, Hazan acknowledges that there is no “right way” to embark on these talks. “It’s a tricky balance between too little and too much,” she says. “You need to follow the child’s lead to see what they can handle.”
However, parents are not the only source of information for kids; often children will hear stories at school or catch glimpses of television programs while at a friend’s house. A child reading a novel about the Holocaust, for example, might learn new, particularly upsetting details for the first time. If this exposure causes a lot of anxiety, nightmares or physical symptoms like stomach aches or headaches, Hazan advises parents to have a discussion about the feelings, worries or emotions a child is experiencing.
“Have them express it in their own way,” suggests Hazan, which could include talking about the event, drawing a picture or writing a story. She also advises parents to help their kids put difficult or traumatic events into some kind of context. For example, parents of an older child upset to learn about the Holocaust can discuss how this affected the worldwide protection of human rights and the development of an international war crimes tribunal. Even a young child can probably understand that after the tsunami in 2004, Indonesia developed an early-warning system. Talking about what people have learned from difficult events and what concrete steps have been taken to help prevent them from being repeated can be very reassuring to children.
Hazan says it is better to help kids face difficult times rather than shield them because this is the only way they can develop good coping skills.
Kids should then be encouraged to think of practical ways they can help out during a major event, such as an earthquake. They can donate some of their allowance money, volunteer at local charities or start a fundraiser at school.
If a child is worried about being kidnapped, a parent can discuss safety measures or even suggest a self-defense course.
However, if anxiety seems to be hampering a child’s day-to-day life in significant ways, parents might want to consult with a pediatrician or their local CLSC to see if a talk with a therapist of counsellor might be needed.